football Edit

Bowl motivation comes easy to Auburn after UCF 'learning experience'

TAMPA, Fla. | Derrick Brown was only a sophomore, but he knew a lack of focus and motivation when he saw it.

When Auburn lost to UCF in the Peach Bowl two seasons ago, some suspected that the Tigers weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to get into Mercedes-Benz Stadium and play in that New Year’s Six matchup, and that the team was overall complacent.

That was exactly the case, Auburn’s unquestioned ambassador said in Tampa.

“A few years ago we played UCF and we didn’t go out there with the right mindset,” Brown said. “That lackadaisical stuff doesn’t exist anymore.”

Javaris Davis (13) and Daniel Thomas (24) defend UCF receiver Tre'Quan Smith (4) during the 2018 Peach Bowl.
Javaris Davis (13) and Daniel Thomas (24) defend UCF receiver Tre'Quan Smith (4) during the 2018 Peach Bowl. (Dale Zanine / USA TODAY Sports)

The cards are laid out far differently this year. Auburn knew it was out of Playoff contention a month ago, as opposed to being knocked out of it in the SEC Championship game two seasons ago.

Brown said that shouldn’t have been an excuse, however, and his team isn’t making any of those ahead of its showdown with 10-2 Minnesota in the Outback Bowl.

“Yeah, I think there was a learning experience,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of the Peach Bowl. “That was a year that I think we knocked off two No. 1s back to back, and we went to the SEC Championship game a little banged up, and of course we were thinking big things, and we got beat there. And then we got a UCF team that's very, very talented, and we didn't play our best game, and that hurt.”

After the UCF loss, Malzahn felt he needed to dial up the seriousness with his squad in bowl season, hitting home the sentiment that at the end of the day, a team travels for a bowl game for one sole purpose.

“A lot of people go to bowl games and they get knocked off track or they're not focused because they feel like they're there for other things, but we're not here for that,” safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “It's a business trip. At the end of the day, we're going to have a little fun, not be too serious, but we're here to win the game."

Auburn will certainly have fun in Tampa Bay. Bo Nix, Arryn Siposs and others already visited the major local hospital and been a positive force there, while more players rode roller coasters and pet cheetahs at Busch Gardens on Saturday. Select Tigers will be guests of honor at Sunday’s Tampa Bay Lightning game. They’ll get a day on the beach. They’ll be downtown for the New Year’s Eve parade.

But it’s about recognizing that this is the last ride for many players on the roster, and working to ensure they, along with the rest of the team, are rewarded for a grueling season with another victory to cap things off.

Malzahn said Auburn took that approach to heart last year, when its laser-focus was unquestioned in a 63-14 beatdown of Purdue in the Music City Bowl.

Minnesota is much better than Purdue, but the same principle exists for Malzahn’s squad this year.

“For us, it’s really not that hard,” Malzahn said. “Any time you have experience and your players specifically have experience and they went through that hurt, it doesn't take a lot to get them motivated. In last year's bowl they were very motivated. And then this year we have a bunch of seniors, some of them could have left early for the NFL like you see around the country. Our guys decided to stay.

“... We can have fun back home, but our guys are here to win a football game.”